LONDON — Jonathan Akeroyd won’t be laying out his vision for Burberry until Nov. 11, but the chief executive officer gave a strong indication of where the brand is headed with his first big hire — Daniel Lee as chief creative officer.
Judging by the financial market reaction, the choice was sound. In the hours following the news of Lee’s appointment on Wednesday morning, Burberry’s share price tracked upward, rising as much as 4.4 percent in the late afternoon.
It closed the day 3.2 percent higher at 17.38 pounds and against the backdrop of market turmoil in the U.K., a result of Prime Minister Liz Truss’ controversial new national budget.
Lee, who had been widely tipped to get the job, had been unemployed for nearly a year, sitting on luxury’s sidelines since he made an abrupt and unexplained departure from the Kering-owned Bottega Veneta.
He had been instrumental in reviving that accessories-focused Italian brand, making it relevant for a new, digitally savvy generation, and many wondered aloud and on social media what had precipitated his hasty exit after three very successful years.
Lee’s forte lies in creating buzzy, on-brand accessories, an area where Burberry still lags peers such as Gucci, Dior and Louis Vuitton. Although accessories is a fast-growing business at Burberry, it’s a relatively small one.
Last year, more than 50 percent of Burberry’s revenue came from menswear and womenswear combined, with accessories generating 37 percent.
Burberry’s accessories category is on the rise thanks in part to the former CEO Marco Gobbetti, who made a big push in the category, launching new products at higher price points more in line with Burberry’s peers.
It’s clear Akeroyd wants to shift that business into high gear and for Lee to sprinkle his magic across the leather goods, in particular.
In a flash report following the appointment, Bernstein’s Luca Solca described Lee as an “appropriate choice, as he has demonstrated the ability to create a highly successful new chapter for Bottega Veneta.”
Solca described handbags and shoes as “the two potentially most promising developments for Burberry. So far, the British brand has struggled to make its mark in these categories and create high-profile iconic products. Daniel could open this opportunity.”
In Burberry’s fiscal first quarter, leather goods comparable sales grew 21 percent outside of Mainland China, led by the top-selling Lola handbag range. The TB family of bags also performed well, supported in particular by the Frances, a classic rectangular tote with a top handle.
During his three years at Bottega, Lee injected a new and youthful spirit into the collections, and his zeitgeist-y designs were the talk of social media and the wider fashion industry.
His top-selling accessories included the Pouch bag, the Cassette bag and the Lido sandals. He was the designer who unleashed a craze for puffy, squishy leather pieces and his designs spawned endless knockoffs up and down the high street. His influence on fellow designers, and on consumer tastes, was clear.
In 2020, on Lee’s watch, Bottega Veneta represented 9 percent of parent company Kering’s overall sales. Leather goods accounted for 74 percent of the total, followed by shoes with 16 percent and ready-to-wear representing only 7 percent of revenues.
That wasn’t all. At Bottega, Lee also built momentum with a series of disruptive strategies such as erasing the brand’s Instagram account and staging traveling fashion shows in locations including London, Berlin and Detroit.
At the 2019 Fashion Awards in London, 18 months after joining Bottega, Lee took home a record four prizes, including designer of the year and brand of the year.
On Wednesday, Akeroyd described Lee as “an exceptional talent with a unique understanding of today’s luxury consumer and a strong record of commercial success. His appointment reinforces the ambitions we have for Burberry.”
The CEO added he’s confident that Lee “will have the impact we are aiming for in this next phase, supported by our talented and experienced teams.”
Lee joins Burberry on Oct. 3 and will be based at its headquarters in London, reporting to Akeroyd. He’ll oversee all Burberry collections and present his debut runway collection at London Fashion Week in February 2023.
It will bring a much-needed jolt of energy to fashion week, which this year was disrupted by the mourning period and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
On Wednesday, RBC was less fulsome in its praise for Lee. Shortly after the announcement, the bank wrote that Lee is “widely credited for setting the foundations and early success at Bottega Veneta in its recent turnaround endeavors; however [he] left the brand in November 2021 for undisclosed reasons after three years.”
The bank also pointed out that since Burberry’s offer is 50 percent replenishment and 50 percent seasonal stock, “we do not expect a large product reset and expect a fairly orderly transition given the timing.”
Lee’s return from the wilderness was quick, with sources saying he was helped by longtime supporters, including Naomi Campbell.
Members of the industry, however, are still scratching their heads about why Lee left Bottega, and why he’s at Burberry now.
Last November, as reported, industry sources speculated that the designer’s way of working at Bottega was unconventional, chaotic and sent colleagues running for the door — although that could describe quite a few designers working in luxury fashion today.
According to multiple people at the time, Lee was a real talent but clashed repeatedly with several colleagues, and wasn’t a great communicator. “So many people left, it was a revolving door,” said one source familiar with Bottega at the time.
At Bottega, Lee’s disruptive strategies garnered praise — and scorn. Whatever it was, it seemed people were always talking about him.
After Lee nixed the brand’s Instagram account, he went old-school, introducing a new, visually focused, quarterly digital journal. His aim was to explore an alternative way of engaging with Bottega’s collaborators and worldwide audience.
Some read the move as pretentious, others thought it was forward-thinking. The bags and shoes continued to sell.
Lee also staged traveling fashion shows in locations including Detroit, London and Berlin.
On the latter occasion, in early April 2021, the company drew backlash on social media after staging the fall 2021 show at the city’s Berghain techno club.
The show attracted guests including rappers Skepta and Slowthai, DJ Honey Dijon, Nigerian singer Burna Boy, ballet dancer Roberto Bolle and designer Stefano Pilati.
However, the decision to show, and to hold a rollicking party afterward (with no masks or social distancing) at Berlin’s Soho House, was viewed as ill-judged given the German city was still in lockdown and grappling with surging COVID-19 cases.
Still, last November when the split happened, François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering, thanked Lee for his passion and energy.
“His singular vision made the house’s heritage relevant for today and put it back to the center of the fashion scene. I would like to personally thank him for the unique chapter that he has written in the long history of Bottega Veneta,” he said.
Barclays issued a note at the time calling Lee’s departure “negative, in our view,” given that the designer “brought back some momentum to the brand, which returned to positive organic growth in 2019 after a phase of brand transformation.”
On Wednesday, an industry source said that despite the controversy surrounding Lee, and his methods of working, they could understand Burberry’s rationale for picking him.
“At Bottega, Daniel preserved the DNA of the brand, and avoided turning it into a reflection of himself and his own aesthetic. Maybe Burberry is thinking the same thing, that he will keep the DNA, and simply clean the slate and make the brand more contemporary and relevant for a new audience,” the source said.
“Also Daniel is British, he’s available to work and he has experience at a big luxury house with a high-profile name. You can’t discount that kind of profile,” the person added.
Yorkshire-born and a graduate of Central Saint Martins, Lee succeeded Tomas Maier, who had helped shape and elevate Bottega Veneta for 17 years. Before that, Lee was director of ready-to-wear at Celine, which is owned by Kering’s rival LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. He has also worked at Maison Margiela, Balenciaga and Donna Karan.
As reported, Lee will succeed Riccardo Tisci as chief creative officer and his appointment comes amid a backrop of sweeping changes at Burberry.
As reported, Julie Brown, Burberry’s well-respected chief financial officer and chief operating officer confirmed last week she plans to leave the business next year, and Burberry said a search for her successor is underway. Next year Brown will join the British pharma giant GSK as CFO, part of a female management team.